A week is a lifetime in politics, goes an adage. And so it would seem. Just one week ago, we posited that Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition of the right was likely to form the next government in Israel. Since then, Benny Gantz, head of Israel’s Blue and White party, has been reinvigorated by Netanyahu’s challenges in pulling together a coalition, after original exit polls had the Likud-led coalition at 60 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset. This number has dropped through the actual vote count to 58, and it has changed the outlook.
As it has in the previous two elections, the result will hinge on the decision of Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party, a right-wing but defiantly secular movement. Liberman has publicly released his demands for support. Among them: he will not support a government led by Netanyahu (or any other individual under indictment) and he wants to increase the number of ultra-Orthodox serving in the military, introduce civil marriage, thereby taking control of this lifecycle event from the exclusive purview of the rabbinate, and hand decision-making about commerce and transportation on Shabbat to local governments. Meanwhile, Gantz is having a rebellion in his own ranks about seeking support from the largely Arab Joint List in parliament. So, the process is largely back to where it’s been for more than a year, with no more certainty of who will form the next government.
Whatever happens, Liberman’s sweeping secularist proposals are nothing to ignore. The ally-turned-nemesis of Netanyahu, Liberman seems to have learned from the masters how to leverage minimal electoral success to enormous political advantage. In the past, it has been the religious parties that conditioned their support for desperate-to-make-a-deal leaders on getting key benefits and concessions for their respective communities. If Liberman succeeds in helping create a Blue and White government that implements some of his plans, it will represent the same tail-wagging-dog effect that religious parties used to assert Orthodox standards across much of Israeli society. Except Liberman will leverage his seven seats to repeal some or much of what those religious parties have achieved.
This Israeli moment brings to mind other rapidly changing political fortunes. Joe Biden, whose campaign was struggling to survive a few weeks ago, is suddenly (again) the undisputed front- runner for the Democratic nomination in the United States. There is another parallel between Israel and the United States that is currently evolving, this one less publicly known. While Liberman strives to diminish the connection between religion and state in his country, U.S. President Donald Trump is moving his country more in the direction of Israel’s religiously influenced society.
As in Canada, many religious organizations in the United States do an enormous amount of good, in many cases filling in gaps where government services can’t or won’t. Republican administrations have tended to expand – contract out, if you will – some social services previously delivered by governments, while the Obama administration, for example, introduced safeguards to prevent those agencies from discriminating against individuals or groups who they might deem outside their theological teachings.
Writing in the New York Times Sunday, Katherine Stewart, author of a book on religious nationalism, warned that Trump is eliminating those Obama-era safeguards and making it easier for publicly funded agencies to discriminate. For example, clients receiving services from a taxpayer-supported Christian organization could be forced to profess allegiance to Jesus in order to access services or an employee could be fired for not living a “biblical lifestyle,” the definition of which the religious organization, presumably, could define at their own whim.
A test case in Missouri seems innocent enough: a church maintains it should get federal funding to build a kids’ playground; that being refused such money represents discrimination against religion. The corollary is clear: if preventing tax money from funding religious organizations (even for something as innocuous as a playground) is discrimination, Stewart warns, “then the taxpayer has no choice but to fund religion.” This would represent an abrogation of one of the most fundamental cornerstones of the U.S. Constitution: the First Amendment, which declares, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The framers of the Constitution were concerned not only that eliminating the barrier between government and religion would corrupt a government intended to serve all citizens but, perhaps equally, that it would corrupt religious institutions themselves. A number of the people on the test case’s side are also leaders among Trump’s evangelical constituency.
What was especially jarring when perusing the Sunday Times was a far more prominent story – on page A4, to be specific – about how Quebec’s secularism law is having a detrimental effect on civil servants, mostly women, from cultural minorities. The law, which precludes people who work in most roles in the public service from showing any external indications of religiosity – a kippa, a headscarf, a crucifix, a turban – is preventing individuals from beginning or advancing in their careers and, in some cases, effectively chasing them out of the province.
These disparate examples from three very different societies indicate the folly both of excessive religious interference in governmental affairs and heavy-handed efforts to have the opposite effect. Somewhere in the middle must be a commonsensical approach to these extremities. Of the three countries in the examples, Israel is perhaps the one where the challenges are most concrete and affect the most people. What, if anything, happens as result of Liberman’s gambit will be a fascinating experiment to watch.